Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Book review: The Perfect Theory, A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity

Amazon book review.

This is a wonderful book written for the general public whose topic is the history of general relativity, its evolution as a theory, and the modern evolution of gravitational theory to present attempts to obtain quantum gravity.  It is a very well written book by an astrophysicist at Oxford who works in this area. The author has his personal experiences with the theory mixed in throughout the book.

Its first chapter is entitled "If a Person falls Freely".  This is part of a thought experiment that Einstein used in order to come up with his ideas for general relativity. It discusses his ideas interspersed with Einstein's personal history as a Swiss patent clerk up to his becoming a physics professor at Berlin, then spending his later years at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. There are also interesting tidbits throughout the book.  As an example, when Einstein skipped class as an undegrad which fellow student lent him his class notes so that he could see what he missed?

One of the earliest solution's of general relativity was Schwarzschild's showing the existence of black holes.  As expected black holes are a large topic with Oppenheimer, Synder, Wheeler. Penrose, Hawking, Bekenstein, Zel'dovich and other discussed.  Cosmological implications from general relativity are also a big topic with the expanding universe of Friedmann and Lemaitre, Einstein's introduction of the cosmological constant in order to have a static universe, up to present day modification to gravitational theory.  The history of general relativity is intermingled with experimental developments in astronomy which is explained very well.  This book shows how a theory and experiments grow off of one another and shows how science is advanced in this way.  One example of many in the book is shown very well with the work of Jim Peebles over many years.  The book discusses a variety of personalities involved in the development of general relativity and also shows how it was carried on in the secretive Soviet society.

The history to obtain a quantum theory of gravity as explained in this book and is very interesting and informative.  All the big names in physics that you can think of have tried their hand at this problem and none have come up with a solution.  The reasons why are discussed.   This book has others that you might not have heard of such as DeWitt and their tales.

If you are curious about Einstein's theory of relativity and its implications in astronomy,  cosmology along with recent attempts  to obtain a quantum theory of gravity this is a wonderful book to read and well worth your time.

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